Negotiating with the US over nuclear issues, sovereignty, peace and much else, is like playing card poker with a punk in a Wild West saloon. You’re never going to win because the punk makes up all the rules of the game. In fact, he can change the rules of the game as he goes along to make sure he always wins.
In the saloon game, Washington insists that the adversary must lay down all his cards on the table, while the US can keep its hand close to its chest, never revealing what its suite comprises. The adversary must also wager all betting chips up front without an inkling of the outcome; and, since this is the Wild West, the adversary has to put his gun on top of the table while the US gives itself the prerogative to hold a cocked gun under the table.
Moreover, the American punk is allowed to have an unknown number of aces up his sleeve in order to furtively deploy just in case, somehow, he feels that the loaded game is going against his winning streak.
Sounds a bit far-fetched? Well, let’s take a look at the recent standoff with North Korea.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, rode into East Asia earlier this month affecting an air of reason and restraint. It helps when you have a global posse of dutiful corporate news media on your side. This is the beginning of loading the game. From the outset, it is presumed and projected that Washington is on a mission of peaceful mediation, a voice of sanity and fair play.
The projected image of American restraint and reason is set against the backdrop of the same Western media portraying North Korea and its young leader Kim Jong-un as wild, reckless and wanton, issuing threats of nuclear war and turning Washington-backed South Korea into “a sea of flames”. Yee-ha!
In Tokyo, Kerry told reporters in earnest tone: “The United States remains open to authentic and credible negotiations on denuclearization, but the burden is on Pyongyang [the North Korean capital]”.
Kerry also called on China’s leadership to “help bring North Korea back to the negotiating table”.
So here is the scene: the American punk is sitting at the table wearing the white hat of civility and legal probity, offering the opportunity for “credible negotiations” to establish peace. The unruly one is North Korea, wearing a costume black hat, permitted to come to the table on condition that he first lays down all cards, that is, forswear capability for nuclear weapons. In truth, the impoverished Stalinist state does not have many cards to play, yet it is being mandated to surrender whatever leverage it may have for no certain outcome. And given the past performance of perfidy by the US towards other adversaries, who could blame North Korea for being reluctant to comply?
Meanwhile, the aces-up-sleeve and guns-under-the-table all belong to the US and its clients. The American nuclear-powered B-2 bombers that can fly over the Korean Peninsula at any moment are not part of the admission fee to the table; neither are the American nuclear-capable submarines and Aegis class destroyers that are patrolling the South and East China Seas around Korea; nor is the giant hemispheric missile system that the US is scaling up and networking between its Pacific West Coast, Alaska, South Korea, Guam and Japan.
In Beijing, Kerry would only offer the most vague and inscrutable “reciprocation” for North Korea’s surrender of its nuclear capability. Kerry said: “Obviously if the threat disappears, that is, North Korea denuclearizes, the same imperative does not exist at that point of time for us to have that kind of robust forward-leaning posture of defense”.
Note the two asymmetric parts of Kerry’s poker-game gambit: North Korea denuclearizes, which is definitive; and if that happens “the same imperative does not exist for [the US] to have that kind of robust forward-leaning posture of defense”. In other words, the US gives nothing definite in return. The latter US move is subjective, noncommittal, indefinite and loaded with deceiving euphemisms, such as “robust forward-leaning posture of defense” – meaning, in all probability, the continuance of America’s armed-to-the-teeth aggressive capability in East Asia.
That is a simple matter of unacceptable double standards. Why should one party have to disarm under unilateral compulsion, while the second party retains the prerogative to blow others off the face of the earth?
This week, North Korea dismissed belated overtures from America and South Korea for “dialogue”.
North Korea’s response is indisputably reasonable, although the Western media have done their best to make that state sound even more of a deranged pariah by reporting that Pyongyang “rejected” the “offers of dialogue”.
South Korea condescended that North Korea’s rejection was “incomprehensible”, while John Kerry said he was weary from the “same-old, same-old horse-trading”, and the ever-so patient US President, Barack Obama, characterized the regime in Pyongyang like a spoilt child that keeps demanding concessions by “banging its spoon on the table”.
Now, hold on a minute. This is the very same table that Washington insists none of its options are off. That is, in particular its pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons against North Korea. This is the same option of annihilation that Washington has always threatened against North Korea ever since the Korean War (1950-53) and over the ensuing six decades. This is the same option of devastation that Washington threatens behind the thinly veiled annual “war games” that it holds with South Korea, including the recent flyover of the Korean Peninsula by B-2 and B-52 nuclear bombers, dropping dummy ordnance just to heighten the terror factor.
When you begin to look into the “unreasonable” demands of the “pariah” North Korean state, instead of relying on Western news spin, you begin to realize just how much this geopolitical poker game is loaded and stacked.
The official North Korean news agency, KCNA, says the state wants the following conditions for dialogue about denuclearization of the Peninsula: 1) that the UN sanctions that have been slapped on North Korea should be revoked; 2) that the US withdraws its nuclear weapons and capability from the region; 3) that the US and its South Korean client regime desist from provocative threats of war in the form of perennial military maneuvers; and 4) that the US and South sign a full peace treaty with the North, declaring that the Korean War is officially and definitively ended.
Note that, contrary to Western depiction of North Korea as a belligerent reprobate, the official position of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is that it wants to engage in dialogue to resolve the recurring threat of nuclear war, but that the above conditions must be met in order for there to be successful negotiations.
On point 1) North Korea argues, with fair reason, that the latest UN sanctions were imposed at the behest of Washington after the DPRK launched a satellite into space last December. Washington labeled this launch as a ballistic missile test, even though the US space agency, NASA, confirmed that it was a satellite launch. The UN sanctions are thus unwarranted, and that is why North Korea defiantly carried out a nuclear test in February.
Points 2) and 3) should be self-evident.
On point 4) few people in the West appreciate that North Korea has lived for six decades, since the end of the Korean War, under the threat of the US and its Southern ally resuming hostilities at any time owing to the fact that the US refused to sign a fully peace treaty in 1953. There has only ever been a cessation of violence under an armistice, not a full peace settlement. This shadow of war, including the use of American nuclear weapons, explains why North Korea appears so truculent and fiery in its rhetoric. What country forced to live under the latent threat of war from a nuclear superpower would not be a bit edgy?
During the George W Bush White House (2001-09), the six-party talks held between the US, China, Russia, Japan and North and South Korea had worked out a road map for denuclearization of the Peninsula. However, Bush scuttled the deal by reneging on the US part of the bargain to supply North Korea with development aid and to demilitarize American holdings on the Peninsula. That is why North Korea resumed its nuclear weapons program. The rules of the game had been unilaterally changed – by the Americans.
The first nuclear test by the DPRK had been in 2006, but after the talks process ran into a dead-end, largely because of US obduracy, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test in 2009, followed by the third on 12 February earlier this year. The pattern here is obviously the DPRK trying to push the Americans back to the former agreement for denuclearization. So, it’s not a case of North Korea having to be coerced back to the negotiating table, as John Kerry makes out. But rather, it’s a case of Washington living up to its agreed commitments worked out under the erstwhile six-party deal. Unfortunately, Barack Obama has followed the same baleful bad-faith policies of his predecessor with regard to North Korea.
Obama’s top diplomat, John Kerry, may be recently proffering the opportunity for dialogue with North Korea, but Pyongyang has rightly responded with the terse attitude – what’s there to talk about? The US and its South Korean client have not put anything on the table that meets North Korea’s reasonable demands for meaningful dialogue. All that is on the table is the demand that the North solely commits to denuclearization, while all American options, including nuclear war, are non-negotiable. In this kind of loaded poker game, the punk always wins.
Rather than pressurizing North Korea to accede to petulant American demands, Beijing and Moscow should insist that Washington play by the same standard rules for everyone. That means, among other things, Washington making a mutual commitment to withdraw its nuclear forces from the Korean Peninsula and respecting the sovereignty of the DPRK with a full peace treaty.
Washington needs to be told that the days of it playing geopolitics-poker in the manner of a Wild West saloon, under its own bent rules, are well and truly over… It needs to begin paying the same respect to all other players befitting the 21st century, where all countries are treated equally, and no-one is above the law.